Tuesday, May 21, 2013

On 'Pointe': Why Amy Sherman-Palladino's BUNHEADS is Hitting All the Right Moves (& How SMASH & GLEE Can Take Their Cues From It)



A few months ago, when news had broke of a Glee mishap concerning the recording of Jonathan Coulton's now infamous cover of Sir Mix-a-Lot's "Baby Got Back," I had intended on writing an article about the musical comedy phenom and intellectual property (which I can still write if some of you are really that interested) but it soon digressed into what I suppose I really wanted to write about, which was the show itself and its failings.  Flash forward a few months later, 10 episodes in on a little show called Bunheads, and here we are.
 
It's a show which has garnered plenty of buzz, long before its debut, thanks to the fact that its star is none other than 2-time Tony winner* Sutton Foster.  Foster plays the smart and often sarcastic Michelle Simms, a former Broadway chorus dancer whose life now consists of parading in skimpy showgirl outfits in Vegas.  Miserable at the turn her life's taken, she decides on a whim to marry her longtime admirer, Hubbell Flowers.  As the show goes on, it seems to turn itself (and viewers' expectations) on its head as Michelle settles in Hubbell's hometown of Paradise, a sleepy town on the California coast.  Through a series of unfortunate and complicated events, Michelle finds herself co-owner -- along with mother-in-law Fanny (played by inimitable A Chorus Line alum Kelly Bishop) -- of Hubbell's entire property, which interestingly enough includes Fanny's dance studio.  Of course, all this leads to what the main focus of the show is: the four "bunheads" in question, Sasha (Julia Goldani Telles); Boo (Kaitlyn Jenkins); Melanie (Emma Dumont) and Ginny (Bailey Buntain), and their relationship with their two superiors...and each other.
 
Yes, it all sounds like any other show you'd expect from the creator of cancelled WB-Later-CW staple Gilmore Girls -- but if you're thinking that, you're forgetting how great a show Gilmore Girls was.  Yes, it had a soundtrack by Sam Phillips that featured a lot of songs that went "la-la-la," but it was more than that: it had strong female characters, intelligent, whip-fast dialogue that could rival the likes of Aaron Sorkin, and a whole lotta heart.  In an age where we're "keeping up" with women who are famous for nothing on television, keeping up with the Gilmores and their ilk seems more and more these days like holding onto a relic of an innocent past long gone.   Until Bunheads, that is.  If there's anything that's missing from the current Teen Drama-scape, it's a show which highlights strong female-to-female relationships.  In the post-Mean GirlsPretty Little Liars world we live in, we need a show like Bunheads as a positive influence for future generations. 
 
So what does the Amy Sherman-Palladino-helmed dance dramedy have to do with Glee, Smash and shows like them?  
Well, a lot, actually.  
Like those shows, Bunheads is also a show about the world of performing arts -- in this case,  the world of dance (I could just specifically say ballet, but as the season goes on, Marguerite Derricks' choreography takes on different styles).  The series showcases a group of dancers at an age where everything is, well, a turning point.  Take into account the heavily disciplined art form that is ballet, combined with the daily dread that is high school and you've got yourself a world full of trouble -- especially considering the fact that yes, these young characters also happen to be girls.  Girls who want to date, have a normal family and maybe be able to eat some junk food every now and then.  Life's tough enough when you're a girl, but when you're a teenage girl aspiring to be a prima ballerina?  It's even tougher.
 
Okay, so this all may sound like a bit of a stretch...but is it, really?
  
What makes this show unique from all the other shows is that it ignores all that extra stuff: y'know, the over-the-top, Let's-Record-A-Song-And-Put-It-On-iTunes numbers that they all seem to be doing these days.  And while I love musicals that do it big, it seems that when it's done on television it's the story seems to suffer under the brunt of its magnitude.  If what both Glee and the now-cancelled Smash lack is a sense of direction and focus, Bunheads seems to have it in spades.  It follows that Golden Rule of All Golden Rules when it comes to musical theater: have the song help move the story along, not overshadow it.  And while this show has no singing, it does have dancing -- a lot of it, actually.
 
Here, it is the dancing that becomes the true star of the show.  Forget the rapid-fire dialogue, the twinkly guitar-strumming soundtrack and even the Tony-winning star; at the end of the day, when life hits you hard (as it does to the four girls throughout the season), the only place you can truly go back to and call home is the barre.  Bunheads reminds me of a time when all that mattered was getting that one step just right, practicing until you finally made that turn all on your own.  It's a perfect metaphor for a time in your life when things aren't so easy. 
 
As a former jazz dancer who quit just before high school, this was the thought that struck me as the character Sasha, after having just found out about her parents' divorce, dances fiercely to a song by They Might Be Giants at the end of  Episode 6 (see video below).  It was that episode that made me realize that this show has a lot to offer, and still does.  



So, to the Powers-That-Be: please don't cancel Bunheads.  It still has a lot more to give.

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